Kent Nerburn: Timely Voices from Indian Country

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‘Elder Addressing Crowd.’ This photograph, made in August 2016, is now one of the most famous images from the Standing Rock Native American protests against construction of a pipeline. The photo shows a circle of Indian activists respectfully listening to the elder in the center. His movement is blurred because the photograph was made by Shane Balkowitsch, one of few photographers allowed at these sacred ceremonies. Shane is known for his use of “wet plate” photographic techniques pioneered in the mid 1800s that once recorded photographs of great Indian leaders from that era.

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“You see the ways of the newcomers beginning to fail.
Their faith in the future has caused them to ignore the lessons of the past. Their belief in the individual has caused them to lose touch with the ways of the Creator. Their concern with the human has deafened them to the voices of the other creatures and of the very earth itself. Their love of freedom has made them blind to responsibility.”
from Kent Nerburn’s new book

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Listening to the ‘Voices in the Stones’

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

Here is the last thing best-selling author Kent Nerburn said in our interview about his timely new book on Native American culture:

“If we hope to turn for help to Native American people, we have to understand that we have always been guests in their house. For a long time, we forgot that or we denied it. But, finally, we’re beginning to realize what that means. Now, we all find ourselves standing in the middle of a battle over our relationship with the earth—and whether we can even survive on the planet. We know this because, over and over again, the earth is slapping us in the face. And, at last—after centuries of demonizing and destroying native peoples—we realize that we need their wisdom to help save us all. The genius of native peoples is that they know how to walk humbly on the earth. But the question is: Can we humble ourselves and listen to them?”

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Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Those final words from Nerburn in the interview are also the first thing you need to know about his powerful new book, which ReadTheSpirit is urging you to order for yourself and friends as winter blows into the Great Plains.

As winter arrives in 2016, no spiritual topic has sparked more questions from our readers than the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (#NoDAPL) near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. We’ve heard from men and women around the world, wondering if they should travel to the protest site. If they do make the trip, they have asked, will Indian activists welcome them? Many have asked about the connection between #NoDAPL protests in the streets of major cities—and the solemn prayer circles near Standing Rock that visitors describe as surprisingly transformative. Collectively, we sense that a historic confrontation is unfolding in Sioux country south of Bismarck—but our common ways of understanding and describing such events seem to be failing us.

Global interest in the protests reached a crescendo on Sunday (Dec. 4, 2016) with the announcement that U.S. Army Corps will force a rerouting of the pipeline. This is front-page news from U.S. newspapers to publications around the world concerned about the environment and the rights of Native peoples. Already, new questions are arising about whether an incoming Trump administration will reverse the Army’s decision. Meanwhile, major news outlets, like the Washington Post on Dec. 5, are beginning to explore the deeper Native American religious traditions that fueled this remarkable movement.

As an author, Kent Nerburn’s fingertips have been on the pulse of Indian country for three decades. Now, he has just published with New World Library, Voices in the Stone: Life Lessons in the Native WayThis book (which he finished writing just before the public protests broke out this year) does not describe specific events in the current confrontation. Rather, the book is an eloquent, perfectly timed exploration of Indian culture that should be required reading coast to coast this winter.

In less than 200 pages, Nerburn explores Indian perspectives on how we all have reached this dangerous—and bittersweet—moment in which so many historic and spiritual forces are converging. Known by his long-time readers as a beloved storyteller of real-life stories from his travels, in these pages Nerburn serves up a series of thought-provoking stories guaranteed to inspire (and trouble) your soul, this season. Among the best is an account of an Indian burial he attended—juxtaposed with the burial of his own father.

‘HUMANITY AS A PART OF THE EARTH’

One of his most potent cross-cultural messages concerns the value of elders in our world.

On a practical level, Nerburn writes, native cultures honor the wisdom of elders who have survived so many of life’s twists and turns—in sharp contrast to American culture that seems to be obsessed with youth. That’s simply a factual comparison and perhaps not surprising to readers. What’s so stirring about this new book, however, is Nerburn’s reflections on what elders represent on a deeper spiritual level to a culture determined to survive even the direst disasters. As the planet teeters on the cusp of environmental catastrophe, Nerburn argues that it’s time for all of us to seek the wisdom of elders who have found ways to survive for many millennia on this planet.

“More important than any of the specific details of the Standing Rock protests—who did what to whom in these confrontations—is the spiritual truth that’s emerging. That’s one reason Standing Rock is capturing the imagination of so many people—even in my own family, my daughter talks about this,” Nerburn said in the interview. “We’re seeing photographs of people standing in prayer circles like something out of the old Edward Curtis images of Indian life. People are going out there to join the protest who probably have never prayed a day in their lives and they’re discovering this very different reality out there—people humbly standing in prayer. At the beginning, I have to admit I was cynical about the motives of some of the non-Indian people heading out to Standing Rock. But, I have to say that cynicism is softening. At it’s best, people are learning something new in this whole experience from the Native people.”

What Nerburn hopes people are learning—and what they certainly will discover in his book—is the fundamentally different Indian perspective about our place, as humans, in the world. “They see humanity as a part of the earth—not apart from it. That difference conveys Native thinking and it’s obviously what’s driving the Standing Rock movement right now. I heard a CNN commentator talking about her surprise about what she found at the site. She said she’d never seen any protest like it. Overall, I see these little rivulets of a deeper understanding making their way into our collective consciousness.”

‘A PRIMER ON OUR PLACE ON THE EARTH’

Those words from Nerburn also point toward the power of this book. Confronting events at Standing Rock—either through news reports and social media or a personal visit—is a dive into very deep waters of Indian culture. In this new book, Nerburn once again takes on his beloved role as a non-Indian traveler on our behalf—a guide to the expansive shape of this cultural realm.

In the book, Nerburn writes: “To most of us, Native America is an unknown world shrouded in myth and misconception. To the extent we think of it at all, we imagine a world of drunks, welfare cheats, and casino millionaires or, conversely, elders possessed of deep, mystical earth wisdom. What we don’t see are people who predate us here on this continent and who, in their many ways and many centuries of life, have evolved a way of understanding and interacting with the land that is at once distinctly different from the Eruo-American way and rich with a knowledge of its own.”

And, that’s what Nerburn hopes readers will be looking for as they join him, as narrator, in these pages.

In the interview, he added: “Like I say in that section of the book you just quoted—as Americans, we tend to cast the Native American story in terms of the easiest labels we find to slap on Indian country. We think of drunks, or casinos, or some self-proclaimed shaman who will channel Native American wisdom for you as an individual. In the case of Standing Rock, a lot of the news media is trying to slap on the typical labels we expect in environmental activism. And, yes, of course, there is an ecological issue here. So, the labels seem to fit. We can begin to think of this as just a big game being played out in the Plains. But, if that’s all we see, we’ve missed the real story.

“The real story is that a people who we’ve demonized for centuries is emerging to speak to us about the deeper values of our water and the very blood of mother earth. You begin to connect these much deeper dots all around the world and you realize that climate change is touching all of us. Think about the desertification of Africa and the voices of Native peoples there—and in so many places all around the world. This is not a game someone is playing with winners and losers and all the cast of characters we expect to find in a game—no, this is a moment of change in world consciousness. And this is coming from people who can teach us so much about survival—generation to generation—if we’ve only got the humility to learn from them.”

That’s a major motive behind Nerburn’s decision to write this new book. “I worry for my kids and not just for their relationship to the earth today. As time passes: How are they going to live on mother earth? Anyone who cares about the next generations asks these kinds of questions: How do we counsel our kids in the face of this world that they’re growing into—and their children will be born into? I do hope that this new book is a kind of primer to a different way of understanding and seeing our place on the earth as we grow and age.

“We’re raised by our parents with the hope that we somehow will become accomplished in some way. But, as we age, we realize that our ultimate spiritual goal is to become humble. When you become humble, you become watchful. And when watchfulness deepens, we become mindful of ourselves and others and the earth beneath our feet. And, if we can grow like that, then we truly have accomplished something as humans: We can learn to live humbly in the face of life’s mysteries and, in the process, we share our hearts and our spirits with each other.”

 

Care to read more?

kent-nerburn-author-photo-voices-in-the-stonesKent Nerburn is not Native American, although men and women across Indian country have widely adopted him since his 1994 landmark book, Neither Wolf Nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian ElderYou can read more about him, his thoughts and his ongoing work at his author website.

Among our past ReadTheSpirit stories involving Kent Nerburn are these columns that have been especially popular with readers:

KENT ON ‘BUFFALO’ and ‘WOLF’This 2013 in-depth Q&A with Kent about his book The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo also includes a lot about his life as a writer, theologian and artist, including his earlier work on the Wolf books.

‘LETTERS TO MY SON’This 2014 interview with Kent explores the theme of generational learning.

‘TAXI DRIVER‘—Kent’s voice has touched countless lives in countless ways. In 2012, we published this story that went viral, popularly known as ‘Cab Driver‘ or ‘Taxi Driver.’

This story was originally published at ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine established in 2007 to report on spirituality, diversity and cross cultural issues, including news about books and films.

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  1. Going right now to purchase it !! Love ALL of Mr Nerburn’s books !! So happy about this new book !!

  2. Looking forward to this — I hadn’t heard about it earlier. I’m glad to be catching up to RTS.